The Halloween decorations have been put away and we found a new hiding place for the leftover Halloween candy. We’ve now brought out the decorative Thanksgiving foliage and the baby-geek’s cartoon turkey from last year. That can only mean one thing- Thanksgiving is almost here. I LOVE Thanksgiving because it’s one of the last pure holidays we have. It’s about giving thanks and breaking bread with your loved ones, although the retail establishment seems to be working hard to remind us that Thanksgiving is merely a precursor, a holiday dress rehearsal to (whispering) Christmas. Shhh. Not too loud.
But I disagree, Thanksgiving is about reflecting on all that we have in our lives and we do this through a very grand meal. Thanksgiving taps into my need to nurture and care for my friends and family through food. And I am admittedly one of those people that goes all out- I obsess over the table settings, polish glasses, consider wine options, iron napkins, I create elaborate task charts with the grocery lists (plural) and the menu, the game plan for the week of cooking. I even create a menu of the meal in my Menu Book complete with sketches. It’s sad that we don’t approach every meal like we do with Thanksgiving. It’s so civilized with the beautifully appointed table, the artfully plated dishes, and the fact that we are dressed and usually sitting around a table while we enjoy the food.
I have been cooking Thanksgiving dinners for 18 years now. And prior to that, I was my mother’s prep cook, peeling potatoes, chopping celery and giblets. My very first Thanksgiving as a solo cook happened at a rather sad time in my life. The day prior to Thanksgiving, my parents marriage ended and I found myself staring at the defrosted turkey in our sink, numb but filled with a need to make this meal. I don’t remember the food, but for years afterwards, I cooked double Thanksgiving meals for my divorced parents. Then afterwards, the husband-geek and I set up house and we did our own Thanksgiving. I have done the elaborate, make-it-from-scratch Thanksgivings and each year, as I sit exhausted and sick of the smell of turkey and tipsy from wine, I promise myself that “next year, I’ll keep it simple!”. As the husband-geek can tell you, I have gotten a little better, but I always find new ways to make my simple plans not-so-simple. I remember a Thanksgiving where I made bread so I can make it into stuffing later. Crazy lady! I have also cooked many turkey dinners as a professional cook and even as a volunteer at my local Homeless Shelter, roasting dozens of turkeys at a time. I realize now that I have cooked so many turkeys that I have become blase about the general anxiety surrounding turkey day preparations. So as a seasoned (no pun intended) veteran of the Turkey Dinner, I thought I would share some bits of wisdom about turkey day preparations with you.
The Turkey- I have cooked all kinds of turkey – plain old Butterball brand, organic, kosher, even heritage birds. I’ve prepared Organic birds which are certainly delicious and I feel good about serving it to my guests and supporting an organic farmer. Kosher birds are great because they allow you to skip the step of brining the birds because they are already pre-salted. Heritage birds are flavorful but they are also pricey given the quantity of meat since they are actually wild turkeys not the plumped-up birds raised in a farm. Surprisingly though, I found that Butterball turkeys are actually pretty good even if they are unhappy ‘sweat shop’ turkeys. Here’s some key steps that I follow with turkeys (and all roasting birds for that matter):
- Wash the inside and outside of the bird. Dry it all over with paper towels. With a sharp boning knife, carefully remove the wish bone so you can easily carve the breast meat.
- Carefully loosen the skin from the flesh and rub a flavorful herb butter all over the the breast, leg and thighs. Rub the skin with the rest of the butter. Then add a few sprigs of rosemary or thyme inside the cavity, tie the legs together and tuck the wings under the carcass.
- To ensure flavorful drippings, add some roughly chopped mirepoix vegetables (celery, onions and carrots) all over the bottom of a roasting pan.
- I am obsessed with crispy turkey skin so I’ve figured out a couple of ways to ensure this- I place the dressed turkey with the loosened skin in the bottom shelf of my fridge without a cover and let it air-dry for a couple of days prior to turkey day. This technique allows any moisture on the turkey to evaporate resulting in a crackly crunchy skin.
- If you don’t brine your turkey, the other way to get a tasty bird is to pre-salt your turkey. I remember reading about this technique from Judy Rodgers of Zuni Cafe. This just involves rubbing kosher salt all over the turkey after it’s been washed and dried. After a few days, the salt will have permeated the flesh. I’ve pre-salted my meats before and this year, I am going to employ this technique for my turkey. (if you deep fry your bird, there is no need to brine it since the cook time is so short AND deep frying a moist bird is a recipe for a giant inferno!)
- If you want to try something different- do a Deconstructed Turkey- that where the leg thighs are separated from the breasts and is cooked separately to insure that the white and dark meats get the proper cook time and don’t dry out. I got this technique from Julia Child and Jacques Pepin in their acclaimed ‘Cooking at Home’ Series. Julia Child adds an extra flourish by deboning the thigh bones and filling it with stuffing. The remaining stuffing is mounded on a sheet pan and the breasts are placed on top. It’s a really great technique and I use it when we feel like having turkey dinner any other time of the year.
Side Dishes and Desserts- If you’re like me, you’ve received your recent issue of Bon Appetit or Saveur (or many years ago, Gourmet magazine) with a picture of a beautiful turkey on the cover. I precede to read the magazine and swoon at the photos and the recipes and become instantly ambitious, thinking about all the wonderful side dishes and desserts as well as some new fandangled technique for the TASTIEST bird EVER. I did this for years and I was able to pull it off but I decided to keep it simple this year and stick to my tried and true favorites- cornbread stuffing with mushrooms, twice baked squash, potato gratin, sauteed greens, etc. You get the picture. Here’s some of my tips for handling side dishes and desserts:
- Go with what you know and are comfortable doing with all the interruptions that family can bring.
- Don’t underestimate the idea of making things ahead. It’s amazing how quickly fatigue sets in on the big day, so if you can do most of the work prior to Turkey Day, you’ll enjoy the festivities.
- Here are some dishes that take well to being made ahead:
- Mashed Potatoes-Potatoes can be cooked and mashed then cooled. On Turkey Day, you simply warm the potatoes and add the melted butter and milk/cream.
- Potato Gratin- This can be made a couple of days ahead. Simply cook the sliced potatoes in the milk/cream until nearly tender, then place it in the buttered gratin dish, let it cool. On Turkey Day, take the gratin out of the refrigerator and bring it to room temperature before you bake it.
- Pureed Soups- The ultimate make ahead dish, you can make any kind of pureed soup, cool it and pack it in the freezer if you make it a couple of weeks prior to turkey day. You can warm it in the microwave and finish cooking on the stove top just before you serve it.
- Vegetables are the most labor intensive because of the washing, trimming and cutting involved. Vegetables are also excellent candidates for the ‘make-ahead’ list. Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and green beans, and turnips can be trimmed and cut ahead of time. Mushrooms and the mirepoix(the fancy culinary word for diced celery, carrot and onion) vegetables, squashes can be cut as well.
- Gravy which is usually relegated as a last-minute task, can and SHOULD be made ahead. This is especially the case if you make your own stock. Simply make a roux, then add homemade stock or low-sodium turkey stock. On Turkey Day, simply add turkey drippings to the gravy and adjust the seasonings.
- Most of the traditional Thanksgiving desserts take well to being made ahead and you should consider placing dessert on top of your to-do list. Pies, cakes, cheesecakes can all be made days ahead and when wrapped properly, can be frozen for a week or so.